Democratic challenger Peter Cooke dances around the issue, saying a greater effort must be made and he’d get Utahns together to find a needed solution.
At a forum – it was carefully not called a debate – before the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce on Thursday morning Cooke did admit that Utah’s economy/business climate/quality of life may look good today, but, he says, the future won’t just take care of itself.
“We have some brutal facts” that won’t go away, said Cooke, a retired Army Reserve general and small businessman.
“I may be optimist about our future. But we are the worst in education – and you can’t have a fundamentally sound economic development on the one hand” and a poor education system on the other, said Cooke.
Herbert said the worst thing Utah could do is raise taxes “just as we are coming out of the worst economy since the Great Depression.” And he won’t to it.
A few differences between the two men:
-- Cooke said he would keep Utah in the Obamacare-driven Medicaid expansion. “It is just a good business decision.”
With the federal government paying 100 percent of the Medicaid expansion costs for two years, Utah will, over 10 years, have to put up $240 million to get $3.6 billion.
Herbert said he won’t commit to that now. “We need answers to at least 25 critical questions” about how Utah will be impacted by Obamacare/Medicaid expansion. “We can’t get those answers now,” and much will be decided in the Nov. 6 presidential election.
“Are we going to pay for” an expanded health care system for the low-income and disabled “with Chinese dollars?” asked Herbert.
“Some may say, great, get this money. But it’s not so good if it leads to a second recession. It is not sustainable for (the federal government) to borrow 40 cents of every dollar it spend,” said the governor.
Both Herbert and Cooke said the best thing is for the federal government to just give the states Medicaid dollars and let the states craft their own best solutions to providing efficient health care to its needy citizens.
But since that’s not likely, said Cooke, Utah should take the $3.6 billion.
-- Cooke says he won’t support sales tax collections by Internet businesses for purchases by Utahns – so-called “remote sales.”
Herbert said it is now the law that Utahns owe such internet sales taxes; it costs the state $120 million a year; and he does support having out-of-state firms collecting Utah sales tax and remitting it to the state.
-- Herbert won’t sign the Utah Compact, a community-led effort on illegal immigration. He said he’s heard that some well-known Utahns have signed the pact just recently, but he finds that patronizing so close to an election.
Anyway, Herbert’s own six-point illegal immigration program, which he adopted before the Utah Compact, incorporates the compact. “I have no problem” with the Compact, Herbert said.
Cooke said he signed it and, as governor, would veto any bill that ran counter to the Compact.
-- Herbert said he fixed, through an executive order, any problems with UDOT’s bidding process. He signed a later law to the same effect.
Cooke said he “totally disagrees” with how UDOT bid out the Utah County I-15 rebuild, and if he had been governor he would have ordered that the bidding process “start all over again.”
-- Cooke said he’d take a different approach than the Legislature and Herbert have taken in getting control of federal public land in Utah. And other states’ refusal to follow Utah is an indication that the state is wrong.
Herbert said he’s worked closely with leading officials from other public land states and it is not necessary that they all take Utah’s approach.
The pair returned several times to the education issue.
Cooke said Herbert has done what he can for education considering the Great Recession. But it hasn’t been enough.
“You haven’t made the investment. And we have to close the gap” in education funding. “That is the brutal fact.”
“We face a serious detriment. And it won’t go away,” said Cooke.
“We haven’t put education as a priority. Our kids are not prepared. Maybe we shouldn’t have built a six-lane highway in Utah County, but taken a more balanced approach.”
There should be no tax changes in the immediate future, said Herbert – neither tax cuts nor tax hikes.
“Education is not all about money,” Herbert said. There an be improvements in how we teach, “embrace technology, a new way of doing things.”
Cooke said it was the business community, not government or Herbert, who came up with 2020 – an effort to get 66 percent of adults in Utah with some kind of post-high school certificate or education by 2020.
“It is going to take us $2.2 billion just to get to the norm” in educating children, said Cooke. “We can’t kick this can down the road. Bad news doesn’t get better with time. We have to face it. I’m prepared to do so.”
Several times it was the Democrat Cooke who pointed to Mitt Romney – well loved in Utah – as leading the way as Massachusetts governor in working across the aisle to find state solutions.
Herbert smiled when Cooke said this, perhaps seeing it as a poor attempt to gain some link to the Republican presidential candidate.
Government works best when there is a meaningful opposition, said Cooke, a counter-balance in this case to 33 years since there was a Democratic governor to face off with a Republican Utah Legislature.
“We’ve had 33 years” of Republican governors, “and education has not improved. We need a change. Opposition discussion is the best thing for our state,” said Cooke.
Herbert said he, working with the GOP Legislature, have “turned things around in Utah.”
Don’t believe him or Cooke – “we will say anything” – look at outside groups, like Forbes and Fortune magazines, who rank Utah as the best place to do business.
Look at the Gallup Poll, which has been testing across the United States and says that Utah “is easily the best place in America to be. That’s the reason I’m optimistic about Utah.”